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  • Practices of FreedomLorraine Hansberry, Freedom Writer
  • Soyica Colbert (bio)

In the summer of 1950, after struggling through four semesters at the University of Wisconsin, Lorraine Hansberry moved to New York City to pursue a career as a writer.1 Before arriving in NY, Hansberry had learned from her parents that freedom is a practice rather than a state of being. In 1940, Hansberry's father Carl Augustus Hansberry, an attorney and real estate investor, successfully petitioned the Supreme Court to find racially restrictive housing covenants in Chicago illegal. Carl Hansberry waged his battle for civil rights in the courts. Unfortunately, he won the battle but did not win the war. Chicago remains one of the most deeply segregated large cities in the United States due to housing and mortgage policies that work to reinforce segregation.2 Lorraine's mother, Nannie Hansberry, protected her household with a luger pistol while her husband fought for civil rights in Washington, DC.

As Shatema Threadcraft argues the focus on civic rather than intimate spaces in Afro-Modern thought privileges individual masculine action as definitive of black freedom. Early on Hansberry learned, however, that freedom practices required rethinking "conceptions of black liberation from constraint and conceptions of racial equality that are most focused on black action in civic space" (Threadcraft 27). Although Hansberry participated in public activism she also pursued freedom through the private act of writing. Her writing often detailed the effect racial violence and freedom struggles have on women. Through writing, Hansberry crafted a freedom practice more expansive in nature than the legal pursuit of freedom and one that accounts for gender and racial violence. Hansberry's practices included participating in conferences and protests, giving speeches, and writing for periodicals, including the Marxist monthlies Masses and Mainstream and New Challenge, the black leftist newspaper Freedom, the lesbian magazine The Ladder, and the gay magazine One.

In this essay, I theorize Hansberry's 1950s short form writing—periodicals, poems, short stories—as a black freedom "practice." By definition, practice entails routine, seeks to improve, and applies an idea and/or method. Practice enables the innovation of new political and racial roles because it enacts a vision. Hansberry's writerly practice informed how and what kind of artist-activist she became. Her daily activity of writing defines her politics and offers insight into the investments, allegiances, and desires that emerge in her later work. Hansberry's practice also elaborates a non-identitarian model of blackness produced through citations on and theorizations of black activists. The content and [End Page 157] process, or what I am calling "practice," of her early writing has been overlooked by scholars because, in the case of Hansberry, scholarship follows popular attention. Such an oversight misapprehends the critical contribution she makes to black feminism as a theory and practice and to Afro-Modern political thought. It also reveals that the difficulty in identifying her is a conceptual problem for theories of blackness that do not allow for the innovation at the heart of practice and rather seeks the consolidation central to the categories that install racial hierarchies.

Repeated behaviors over time produce the appearance of gender and race as coherent categories. Deemphasizing the dissimilarities among the actors and highlighting their continuity, what performance theorist Richard Schechner calls "twice-behaved behavior" serves as the evidentiary basis for race and gender as performatives (36). As I write elsewhere,

[Judith] Butler highlights two key factors in the understanding of gender as performative: anticipation and repetition. Anticipation regularizes gender (one acts in accordance with certain norms in order to disclose an anticipated gender that is conceived as essential), while repetition, or what some theorists term the performance of gender, secures the norms in accordance with which one acts. The reality of gender emerges through repeated and anticipated performances of rules and norms (embodied actions): gender is thus a question of doing rather than being.


Although performatives serve to categorize gender and race, they differ from mere categories because by definition they deploy and harness the power to name. Similar to performatives, practices participate in the ebb and flow of power. But unlike performatives, practices reveal the ways daily actions help to consolidate power...


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pp. 157-173
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